Cambodia: Phnom Penh

My adventure started in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m cheating for my first week or so by traveling with my friend Cerys and her boyfriend, Joe, as we were both due to be in Cambodia at the same time on our separate trips. I met them at the airport and we headed out into the heat. On the journey from the airport, I learned my first thing about Cambodia: the road system is that there is no system. Seems you can drive on whichever side of the road you fancy, wherever you fancy, at whatever speed you fancy; no lanes, traffic lights or indicators required. Hold onto your hats the first time you take a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh.

Despite the best efforts of the road users, we arrived in one piece at our hostel, Panorama Mekong, which has a glorious view over the river. As luck would have it, we’d arrived just as preparation was underway for the annual Cambodian Water Festival, which celebrates the Mekong River changing direction (no, I don’t understand either). There seemed to be the Cambodian equivalent of Henley Regatta underway, with several different rowing races taking place on the river throughout our three days in the city. The boats are long, with up to 60 people in each, furiously trying to paddle in sync – which is no mean feat against the fast current of the Mekong. We bought ourselves some miscellaneous fried market food and sat by the riverside soaking up the atmosphere.

A rowing team boarding their boat for the Mekong Water Festival races

Being in Cambodia across the run-up to and launch of the water festival was a) great, in that Phnom Penh was bustling with the buzz of people who had travelled from across the country for their national holiday, and b) less great, in that it was almost impossible to find a bus out that wasn’t full. We booked two days in advance and it still took an entire afternoon to find a company which had available seats out of the capital. This leads me to my first solo travel tip of the day; do some research on national holidays for wherever you’re going. If it’s a big festival or celebration this could be a great time to meet people (we came across some other travellers who’d come to PP specifically for it), but it’ll also likely mean you’ll need to book accommodation and transport earlier than you would normally. Lonely Planet has a good national holidays section with each country guide, which is a good place to start.

Having had our fill of rowing, we wandered up to the central market, which was something of an assault on the senses. Some really lovely colourful flower stalls and amazing food stalls were the good part of the assault, the whiff of sewerage coming from one other corner the less good part. Got my eye in (fairly unsuccessfully) on some bartering for a bag and were back on our merry way – partaking in a spot of aerobics that was underway on the riverside pavement on the way to dinner.

Flowers in the Phnom Penh central market

Aside from trying to clue ourselves up on all things water, the other major thing we did in Phnom Penh was dive head-first into some disturbingly recent Cambodian history. The three of us and a smiley Mexican from our hostel, Sergio Garcia (who amusingly didn’t know he shared his name with a famous golfer), jumped on a tuk-tuk and headed off to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, and Tuol Sleng prison (aka S21). Next top tip; see if your hostel sets up the logistics for these, or ask them to. Ours had a blackboard up with a 9am and 10am departure, with 4 spaces underneath to add your name – which makes it easy for solo travellers to get involved. It was $20 for the tuk-tuk to take us the 13km south to Choeung Ek, then back into the city to S21, then back to the hostel. Not bad if you have a full tuk-tuk for $5 each, and saves bartering with the herds of tuk-tuk drivers on the street (unless you live for that kind of thing).

Choeung Ek was the site of almost nightly executions under the Khmer Rouge. For your $6 entry, they give you an audio guide which directs you round the different buildings and processes of the old site, peppered with (the very few) survivor stories. A quarter of the Cambodian population was murdered under Pol Pot, for reasons so ridiculous as wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language. They’ve tidied up the gore, and some of the buildings were torn down when the horrors of Choeung Ek were discovered after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge, but they’ve kept the layout as it was. Quite simple, with signs and some pieces they’ve found, but very powerful. Pieces of bone and clothing from those executed still come to the surface today after heavy rain.

The ‘killing tree’ at Choeung Ek

Tuol Sleng (a high school turned into a torturous detention centre) was similarly shocking; cleaned up but left very close to how it was, with tiny brick cells and barbed wire across the corridors. Another harrowing audio guide and some graphic photos found when the Khmer Rouge abandoned the place made it a tough visit, but I’m glad we went, as it’s such an integral part of modern Cambodian history. It perhaps makes it surprising that Cambodians today are so friendly and relaxed, when such a violent period within their lifetimes might understandably breed suspicion of anyone unknown.

Tombs commemorating the last 14 people to die at S21 as the Khmer Rouge guards fled

Last tip for these visits; ladies, make sure you have a pair of trousers and t-shirt handy in your daypack. Whilst these aren’t religious sites, they do ask that you dress modestly as a sign of respect by covering your knees and shoulders. Not all travellers acknowledged this, but it’s not too much to show a bit of respect when it’s due in another culture. Also worth knowing that some other attractions in Phnom Penh, including the Royal Palace, have this dress code, but specify shoulders and knees must be covered by a top/trousers and not a shawl.

So. First destination, check. Next, off to the beach!

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today:
6. One being a lady in the market, who I tried to ask 4 times using different combinations of language and gestures what a particular foodstuff was. She merely repeated the price, and I gave up.
Interaction was: part-amusing, part-embarrassing, part-revelatory that I really need to up my market skills game.

One Woman and her Backpack x

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